Who Are Na Kupuna?

Like the rest of us, Hawaiian mature, age and die. And there the similarity ends.

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According to Napua Makua, there’s no such thing as retirement for kupuna. Napua is kumu hula of an award-winning halau, recipient of a Na Hoku award (the Hawaiian “Grammy”), and (when I spoke with her) just back from a performance tour in Japan. She is also building a new home, and maintaining a full teaching load. She attributes all that to her ancestors. The kupuna fill her dreams with instructions and choreography. “They must feel some urgency that I do all this.”

She tells me this story. “Recently I hit overload.” Headaches, losing focus. She shut off her cellphone and drove out to the rural construction site of her new home. The sun was setting and all was silent. She sat alone on the empty lanai and wept. “I started apologizing to my kupuna. I told them, ‘I thought I could handle. I’m sorry.’”

Then she saw a pueo — the endemic Hawaiian owl, a rare and powerful bird that many people consider to be aumakua or spiritual ally — soaring nearby. The owl landed on a pile of rocks at the corner of the lot.

“I believe that aumakua are our kupuna coming back. Each appearance is one specific ancestor.” Which one was this? One whose name for some reason always causes Napua’s eyes to well with tears.

“I called out, ‘Are you really here for me? I’m here at that breakdown moment.’”

The pueo swiveled its fierce head, fixed her with its stare, spread its enormous wings, then swooped over and landed on the railing.

“I thought, okay, that’s it. Headache went away. I came right home and did a task list. Boom! Snap out of it. I got that message loud and clear. Who am I to doubt the voice of my kupuna?”

Napua herself is infused with rascal energy, with her diminutive stature, her sharp, expressive eyebrows, her whip-crack pidgin-inflected voice, and a head of lava-black hair that’s almost equivalent to the rest of her body mass. But she says, “The whole point is, who am I? I’m not special. I am all the people who came before me.” She finishes in a flurry of stuff-gathering, out the door late for the next appointment. “We are not alone. And that’s a good thing.”

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